By Matthew Magolan
first appeared in October 2005 Canoe & Kayak
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been firmly ensconced in the upper echelon of Playboy’s Top 25 Party Schools for as long as the infamous magazine has been ranking institutions of higher learning. What more can be said about Madison after an endorsement like that? Well, if you’re talking about paddling, Playboy has left plenty unsaid.
Downtown Madison is situated on a slender isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. When standing at the Wisconsin capitol building, you’re only one-third of a mile from a put-in on either of the natural lakes. Inspecting a map of the vicinity will make any self-respecting canoeist or kayaker drool. Lake Mendota has 21 miles of shoreline and is shaped like a . . . well,
um, an amoeba.
Lake Monona is basically an oblong, with 13 miles of shore.
The Yahara River, which runs through the entire watershed, makes for some interesting marshy paddling and connects the metro lakes to two others. Lake Waubesa, the smaller, lies a couple of miles southeast of the egress of Lake Monona, and Lake Kegonsa is a few more miles beyond. You can paddle nonstop at least nine miles north from downtown across Lake Mendota to the Cherokee Marsh State Natural Area. And, with a few short portages around dams, you can paddle more than 20 miles down the chain of lakes and Yahara River toward Stebbinsville.
And, with a few short portages around dams, you can paddle more than 20 miles down the chain of lakes and Yahara River toward Stebbinsville.
Given the easy accessibility of these water trails, it’s no surprise that Paleo-Indian Mound Builders inhabited the area more than 3,000 years ago. This cryptic culture left hundreds of effigies around Madison, but extremely few are extant. When Europeans arrived on the isthmus, Winnebago Indians had already occupied “The Land of Four Lakes” for more than 800 years. Because of its desirable location, Madison was the territorial capital even before Wisconsin reached statehood in 1848.
Although the Mendota shoreline is mostly developed today, the lakeside homes meld with the rich vegetation, creating an emerald ribbon. I enjoy paddling Mendota in early spring, when migratory birds are journeying north and their gregarious vocalizations saturate the morning air. The University of Wisconsin owns about three miles of shoreline on the south end of the lake. Nearly two miles of this is undeveloped, wooded, and wonderful to explore around Picnic Point. University Bay often holds large flocks of American coots, Canada geese, and various ducks as the winter ice disappears. There are additional stretches of undeveloped shoreline on the north end where the Yahara enters and Dorn Creek spills through Governor Nelson State Park.
While I was paddling with my friend Jason one April morning, we counted 16 adult loons grouped tightly together. It was surprising to see them in such a large flock and actually getting along, as these strikingly patterned black-and-white birds are usually territorial and often found only in mating pairs. They were probably males, which move north before their mates to battle for prime nesting habitat. On Mendota, it appeared that the birds had reached a truce, fishing together in semi-harmony. A few strained calls were the only hint of conflict. I thought of the French adage cherchez la femme (look for the woman) and chuckled quietly at the idea that males get along fine when there are no females around to fight over.
Most Madisonians would say the city owes its quirky modern beat to the University of Wisconsin, which has been at its heart since 1848. Education often leads to liberal notions, and many innocent farm kids sent to the university over the years have found it stifling to return to their conservative rural hometowns. So, many of them have chosen to stay in Madison, which embraces the “radical” ideas of the “intellectual elite.” Ideas like freedom of speech, political accountability, and even, gasp, equality. These selfsame ideas have led the remainder of Wisconsin to refer to the socio-intellectual experiment that is Madison as “60 square miles surrounded by reality.” Playful banter aside, Madison is the cerebral hub of Wisconsin, and the university is highly respected throughout academia, Playboy be damned.
After our paddle, Jason and I walked down bustling State Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, which could be described as Haight-Ashbury infused with a midwestern sensibility. On our way to get food we passed panhandlers, street musicians, and cute co-eds bobbing to and fro in fashionably skimpy clothes. Jerk pork from the Jamerica food cart on Library Mall was just what we were craving. The dark dreadlocked cook thanked us in a sweet Caribbean lilt as we took our containers of food and wet off to eat by Lake Mendota.
Frosty air drifted up from the cold lake as we sat on the stepped concrete breakwater, but the unseasonably warm day quelled the chill. The palpable contrast between bitter cold and spring warmth was invigorating. While the spicy, moist pork melted in our mouths, we laughed about our morning adventure. We had paddled through skim ice that tinkled like breaking glass, chased flocks of coots, negotiated what remained of the winter ice, and gotten wonderfully close to the loons. Looking out over the water, it occurred to me that maybe the university isn’t the heart of Madison after all. Lake Mendota is.